It continues to be a busy summer for everyone at Penske Racing. As you probably know, circumstances have put the team in the media spotlight in both the IZOD IndyCar Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series, while we're still in a good position in the NASCAR Cup Series where Kurt Busch is ranked 10th with just a few races remaining prior to the Chase.
Leading up to the Chase is always interesting. It is a fine balance between preparing for the Chase and continuing to focus on improving the on-track performance of the cars that aren't in contention for the championship. To ensure Kurt has the best possible equipment for the Chase, we will typically take more risks with the cars of Brad Keselowski (No. 12) and Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77), but they will also be the ones who may see the initial benefit. Over the next couple of races, I'm sure we will implement programs that will accelerate the developments that we've been testing – particularly in the engine – so that Kurt will have proven equipment for the final 10 races. Obviously you can't afford a DNF once you're in the Chase and expect to have a chance at the championship. Setup-wise, the drivers will probably continue as usual because there is so little track time and it is important not to have too many “science projects” while trying to get results.
For Brad and Sam, I'm sure they will be focusing on getting better each week while trying to build on their successes so far this season. If you try and hit home runs, a lot of times you end up striking out completely. We want them to end the season with positive momentum. When you're going back to tracks you've already raced this year, you try to achieve better results than when you went there previously – something to show you're going in the right direction.
The sponsorship quest for the No. 77 car continues and I can't say we have made much progress from when I wrote my last blog in June. I think it's one of those things that will come down to the wire but we certainly haven't given up and sometimes things happen when you least expect it in this business. With regard to the NASCAR Nationwide Series next year, we anticipate running two full-season entries again. It will be a challenge as we will be building a whole new fleet of cars to the new Nationwide CoT spec, but when they look and run as good as the new Challenger, it isn't too tough to be motivated!
Dodge continues to work with our engine shop to improve our engines and I'm confident you'll see Penske Racing get stronger as the Chase gets closer. Of course, you always wish you would have more than one car in the hunt – as a team, our odds are less than say Hendrick or JGR – but I think Kurt and his crew chief Steve Addington have what it takes with the group they have and I would say we have as strong a chance as anyone. It would be nice to get a couple more really strong results, and maybe a win or two, before Richmond (the last race before the Chase) so that we're able to be aggressive rather than relying on the outcome of that race to determine our fate. That's a difficult event to get through cleanly, and it's never fun to just sit there with your fingers crossed.
Brad currently has more than a 300-point advantage in the Nationwide Series and lately he's been able to gain some respect with his road racing abilities with fourth-place finishes at Road America and Watkins Glen. It really comes down to him continuing to improve his craft as a driver during test sessions, while being patient during the races as things play out. It's a similar situation to Kurt – his background wasn't road racing, yet he was determined to learn what it takes to succeed. Ryan Briscoe has even gone with our guys during a few road course tests with the Nationwide and the Cup Series cars. Ryan provides some more data and helps out the stock car guys whenever possible while also learning a few things about driving something that weighs about twice what he is used to.One of the incidents that I'm sure you didn't miss was the last-lap mess at Gateway between Brad and Carl Edwards. Brad, I'm sure, would have preferred not to make any contact with Edwards at the start of that last lap, based on their history, as he knew that would make it much more difficult coming to the checkered flag. But I don't think anyone envisioned what would transpire on the front straight coming off of Turn 4. I would say that is probably as upset as I have seen Roger Penske, and it really put NASCAR in a tough situation. They want everyone to race each other hard and they've made it very clear that they are OK with bumping and rubbing. But when it gets to the point where you're putting others in harm's way, then something has to be done and, to NASCAR's credit, they drew the line there.
The unfortunate thing was that a lot of other cars and teams were caught up in that wreck, and there certainly wasn't any remorse shown after the race. It was a little different than turning a guy in order to get the win – it became a much bigger situation. Brad, I believe, has a good idea where the line is and I'm sure he will continue to race other guys the way they race him. I have always taken the approach that the drivers have to work it out with each other on track rather than getting involved at some level of management. From an organizational standpoint, we will always be there to remind them who they represent, but at this level they should already know how to race.
And just when I thought it was behind us, I was shopping with my kids who were watching television and they pointed out the ESPN commercial with the Smokey and the Bandit theme with the 12 and 99 haulers. I had forgotten that we had approved that spot a few weeks before Gateway and I had actually questioned whether it would still be relevant once it aired as it had been so long since the Atlanta incident!
Just a week later, we were in the middle of it again with Helio Castroneves and the blocking incident at Edmonton's IZOD IndyCar Series race. That situation was unfortunate for a lot of reasons. I don't think anyone saw that call coming with only a few laps to go. I'm sure the spotlight will be bright on that going forward and I'd be surprised if, at the end of the day, it wasn't the catalyst for creating a better process in future.
The severity of that penalty, for what I see as a very subjective call – and one that, when you go back through the race, could have been made at other points to other drivers – not only took a race win away from Helio, it also took away his chances of competing for the championship. What we ask for as teams is consistency in the calls, and rules that are easily understood, and I don't think we had either one of those things that day. If he had to do it over again, I'm sure Helio would have funneled his emotions in a different way. There were two areas of focus – one was the aftermath and the other was the actual on-track incident. Unfortunately, what happened after the race got a lot more attention than the race itself.
Whether it is something the officials want to take into consideration or not, there is usually a big difference between the way a driver behaves in the last few laps when the race is on the line than at other stages of the race. Racing has always been about risk and reward. This isn't to say that I don't want to see quality passing, but how do you think fans would have responded to Marco Andretti being black-flagged for blocking at the Indy 500 coming to the white flag in 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr. when Marco cut him off in Turn 3? Or what if if Al Unser Jr. had to give his first Indy ring back for weaving in front of Scott Goodyear coming to the checkered flag in 1992?
This wasn't even a case of weaving and blocking. If you described to someone that a driver was penalized for blocking, I think there may be many ways of defining it, but none of them would describe what Helio did at Edmonton. The difficult thing – and one that wasn't explained well at all – was the restart procedure in general. What the officials were asking Helio to do at the end of the race essentially made him a sitting duck, because earlier in the race, they had warned Will Power about his restarts. They had said Will was accelerating sooner than the point they had described in the drivers' meeting, prior to the chicane. He was warned during the race that he couldn't do that anymore. He wasn't black-flagged; he was warned and prior to that last restart, the officials told me in no uncertain terms that Helio wasn't allowed to accelerate until the chicane. Well, if you can't accelerate before the chicane and you have to stay on the left side of the circuit at Turn 1, then if the guy behind you does a good job, there is no way you will hold the lead. Helio knew that he would be penalized if he accelerated prior to the chicane, so the only chance he had was to protect his line going into Turn 1. It had been done other times during the race, but I guess somewhere deep in the rulebook it must say that you shouldn't black-flag Paul Tracy in Canada. The inconsistency is what was most disappointing about the incident.
What we need is a simple rule that people understand and it then needs to be applied consistently. The good thing is that after that race there were a lot of people talking about IndyCar racing who typically don't. If anything comes out of this, I hope how the races are officiated is better defined going forward. Helio paid the price for everyone, but that's over now.
Had Helio left Edmonton with the win, I think a lot more people would be taking notice of how well he has driven on the road and street courses since the race at Watkins Glen. He has done a great job in qualifying and he was essentially leading in Toronto after the first pit stop at the time he and Vitor Meira got together, and obviously he was poised to win in Edmonton. He ran a great race in Mid-Ohio and he, once again, showed what it means to be a great wing man for his teammate by not taking a big chance with Will in front of him. He could have put himself and Will in a very difficult situation and he chose not to when he had the faster red tires while Will was running on the Firestone blacks.
Unfortunately, it wasn't a Penske that ended up in Victory Lane at Mid-Ohio. Helio and Ryan Briscoe got together with Ryan Hunter-Reay in pit lane, which is the tightest pit lane we have all year – 35ft pit boxes with walls on both sides. Ryan ended up with a bent right-rear toe link for the rest of the race, which is why he wasn't really competitive. Will lost the lead on the first pit stop to Dario Franchitti as we took just a fraction of a second too long and Dario had a better angle to get to the blend line. Will did his best to make a run on him at the end, but he just couldn't get off of Turn 2 as well as he needed to.
Will left Mid-Ohio with a 41-point lead over Dario and we now head to Sonoma followed by four ovals to close out the season. Will has shown he has potential on the ovals, but he certainly doesn't have Dario's experience or results. A lead of 41 points isn't much when you look at the success that Ganassi has had at Sonoma, Motegi and Homestead. Team Penske won at Chicago and Kentucky last year, but the Ganassi team won the others and the facts are that Will hasn't won on an oval yet, so it's definitely an uphill battle for him now. But it would also make it that much more satisfying to bring it home!
I look forward to getting back to you next month to talk about the next stretch of races.